You’ve probably seen, or used, #livingmybestlife a few times on social media. It’s a hashtag you’ll see with a picture of someone lounging on a white sand beach somewhere or visiting a new city. What exactly do you consider living your best life? My post-breast cancer self has thought about this question from a different perspective than I once did. The 20-something year old me viewed my best life as a destination that I was striving to reach. I thought I’d be living my best life just as soon as I put a check mark in all of the boxes that I’d outlined for myself. What’s the next step? What do I need to do to be able to check off that next box? I’ve been learning that being the best version of myself is not about exhausting myself trying to arrive at some perfect end destination; it’s about the day to day choices that I make to reflect, set goals, and pursue progress over perfection.
This Spring I completed a questionnaire at my oncologist’s office and was pretty shocked at my honest responses about how I felt about myself. I had so many negative feelings about myself and they all resulted from my frustration with the effects that the cancer treatment had on my body. When I asked myself why I answered those questions that way, I knew it was because of this area of my life where I’d simply given up trying. So I made up my mind that I was going to stop hiding behind the excuses. A few weeks later, I walked into my first class at Orangetheory, not because I love working out, but because I was determined to make exercise a priority instead of something I did when I felt like it, i.e., never. Y’all, I have never run in my life. I don’t mean that I ran track in high school and it’s just been a while or that I used to run some mornings with a girlfriend a few years ago. I mean I have n-e-v-e-r run. But after a couple of months, I ran 1.593 miles in 23 minutes. I’m fully aware that this is not at all an impressive distance to run in that amount of time, but the smile that came across my face when I watched 1.499 change to 1.500 was about so much more for me than just those numbers. After three years of all of the excuses you could imagine (which eventually turned into just plain laziness), this was the first time that I finally made up my mind to set a goal, and the first time that I didn’t simply give up when I didn’t reach it. You see, there were actually two different times that I got that day. During my first class that morning, and the only one I planned to take, I ran 1.456. When I wrote my name on the wall under my distance, I was the only person who didn’t get to 1.5 miles. I walked out feeling defeated and disappointed in myself. But I quickly said to myself, “Well, at least you came to class. At least you ran and you’re not walking anymore. Yay you!” But, I knew without a doubt that I didn’t really try as hard as I could have. I knew that I didn’t push myself at all and that I was just trying to get through without a real goal in mind. It took me most of the day to talk myself into going back. Every time I would be close to committing to a second class, a new, creative “At least I…” would pop into my head. “It’s ok, at least I went this morning. At least I’ve been committed to going consistently.” At least, at least, at least….but then I realized that telling myself those things wasn’t serving me at all. All it was doing was keeping me stuck. It’s those very things that have kept me feeling frustrated for the past 3 years. Six months after chemo it was “Well I’m unhappy with the 20 pounds that I gained, but at least the cancer is gone!” As I rummaged through the pantry looking for Oreos at 10pm, “Well at least I ate a salad for lunch.” Not only did breast cancer wreak havoc on my body, but it also left me with some pretty solid excuses that I could continue to hide behind. I have used them all – Why exercise and eat better when the Tamoxifen halts my metabolism anyway? My upper body strength is basically nonexistent and I can barely do a modified push up from all of the surgeries. I could go on and on. It was way too easy to fall into complacency and tell myself that I was doing all that I could. I reached a point where I gave up on trying to feel better. Progress and small victories weren’t anything I was interested in, I needed results and if I couldn’t see them in the form of a fabulous before and after photo ASAP, then it wasn’t even worth it to try. Basically I was just hanging out and telling God that it was no use, He’d done all that He could do in this area of my life. I am so thankful that the Lord convicted me and has helped me to fight back against these lies. That afternoon I went back and proved to myself that I could do it. The victory for me in my turtle-paced run was not the time or distance at all. It was in the fact that I set a goal and I actually pushed for it, instead of being complacent and avoiding the hard work by letting my head be filled with all of the “At least I…” statements that have kept me from putting forth any effort in this area for the past 3 years. I am still not very fast, but I’ve stopped comparing myself to the person next to me on the treadmill. I don’t focus on how much slower I am or how much lighter my weights are. Even if I’m using lighter weights than the person next to me, I keep pressing those weights over my head and every time I think about all of the weeks after surgery that I wasn’t even able to pull myself up out of the bed. When I went for my 4-month checkup at the oncologist last week, I had a much better outlook than I had when I completed that questionnaire in March. I was finally able to confidently tell and show her that I’d really been putting in the effort to get healthy and feel better about myself.
Through this process of trying to get healthier, I have been learning that our life here on this earth is not about becoming the perfect person. It’s not about becoming the perfect wife, friend, mom, boss, employee, or any other role. But it is about the day to day journey of growing into the person that God wants us to be, being able to look at ourselves and see more of Christ. It’s about the progress, no matter how slow it comes or how hard it is to see. It is not about reaching some magical destination of perfection; I’m not going to open my eyes one morning and say, “Today is the day! I’ve arrived at the best version of myself. Check that box.” Process over product. This reminds me of what we early childhood educators call process art. With process art, the process is more important than the finished product. These are the things that your child has brought home and you’ve looked at it thinking “Wow, that is a total mess. Why in the world would his teacher send home something that looks like this? Definitely won’t be going on the fridge.” But what you don’t see when you look at the product is all of the little lessons that he learned as he worked on it. You don’t see the fine motor skills that he was practicing as he squeezed the bottle of paint, or the early literacy skills that he was working on as he discussed the names of new materials. You can’t look at that piece of paper and see the counting he practiced as he placed each acorn in the box, or those inquiry skills that he was developing as he asked questions and made predictions while mixing colors. And years later, when he is a successful reader, you might not realize that much of this can be attributed to those building blocks that were laid during experiences like the artwork that you furrowed your brow at years ago.
What if that is how God looks at us? What if God isn’t concerned about the product, a perfect person, but about the process – our day to day life and how willing we are to let Him mold and chisel us so that when we look in the mirror we see more of Christ? What if it is really about celebrating the small victories every day and not about beating ourselves up when we fall short. When I become overly focused on the end result, it is so easy for me to become discouraged and throw my hands up. If I don’t see change, or even progress, instantly, I think it’s only logical to just quit. This happened with my desire to get healthy and it happens at other times too. Somewhere along the way, I began to believe that if I brushed up against any adversity – in a relationship, in a career path, even in trying a new hobby – that it simply must not be meant for me to do that thing. Too hard, not for me. Time to move on to something else (or stay stuck and sulk about my lack of ability). It happens every single time I go diving. Diving just doesn’t come naturally to me and there always seems to be something that makes a dive difficult for me – I don’t have enough weight on, my ears won’t clear, I get a nosebleed. I seriously spent my first dive a couple of weeks ago thinking about all of the reasons that I was going to sit on the boat during the next dive because I just couldn’t have the smooth, perfect dive that I wanted. So I’ve realized that I’ve got to shift my focus – my goal has to be progress, not checking a box. I have to accept that I am a work in progress. We all are; not one of us is currently the best version of ourselves. No matter how many things that you think you’ve got all figured out, there is always more that you can learn. Always more to discover about yourself, about loving and serving others, about living out the gospel. It truly is about the day to day journey and not about some end destination. This can be a pretty unsettling concept for the perfectionist in me. What do you mean I can’t get it all right, all the time? I think this is why I tend to want to quit so easily when things get difficult. Instead I need to be asking myself how God might be using this to stretch me and help me to grow.
Please hear me when I say that working towards goals doesn’t mean that you aren’t content or don’t love yourself as you are. I believe that you can choose to find your contentment not in perfection, but in knowing that you are working towards God’s best for you. It’s not about thinking you aren’t enough as you are, but about believing that God isn’t done with you yet. If you believe that God isn’t done with you, then you have to say yes to allowing Him to help you grow. Getting healthier was one area that I needed to work on, but that doesn’t mean it’s yours. My thoughts here certainly aren’t intended to make you feel like you need to lace up your running shoes and head out the door. Your goals to help you truly live your best life are unique to you. Maybe you need to work towards communicating better with your spouse or your children, maybe you need to work less and slow down, or maybe you need to take an honest look at the coping mechanisms that you use to handle stress. My hope is that you might be encouraged to take the first step and celebrate progress in whatever part of your life where you want to see change, and most of all that you won’t let the fear of never measuring up hold you back from trying. Philippians 1:6 says “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Claim and believe this. Commit to seeking progress and pursuing the best version of yourself, your best life.